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IAF orders more Tejas LCAs to replace MiG-21s

Ajai Shukla  |  Bangalore 

The Indian Air Force is taking a crucial step towards accepting the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) as a replacement for its ageing MiG-21 fighters. Senior air force officers told Business Standard that IAF was ordering a second Tejas squadron (20 aircraft), in addition to the 20 fighters already on order.

Ashok Nayak, chairman of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which will manufacture the Tejas, has confirmed this development. “The Ministry of Defence (MoD) tender for 20 additional Tejas fighters is on track,” he told Business Standard. “After it is issued, we will sit down with MoD and negotiate a price.”

The order for a second squadron is a vital expression of IAF’s confidence in the future of the long-running Tejas programme. So far, IAF had insisted on evaluating the performance of the first squadron before ordering a second, by 2015-2016. That would allow the Tejas to be upgraded to the Tejas Mark II, which would have a new, more powerful engine. But now, with its fighter fleet dwindling, as the old MiG-21s are retired, IAF is taking the Tejas as it is.

* Against a sanctioned requirement of 39.5 squadrons, IAF is down to just 32 
* By 2015, another 6 squadrons of MiG-21s and two squadrons of MiG-27s would have finished their service lives
* HAL is manufacturing Sukhoi-30MKIs, but the current production is just 14 per year. By 2015, IAF will have just 29 squadrons of fighters
* The shortfall becomes more worrisome with the new requirement of five IAF squadrons for the North-East 

“The Tejas, even with its current GE-404 engine, is a better fighter than the MiG-21,” explained a senior IAF officer who is familiar with equipment policy. “By 2015, the first Tejas squadron will be ready for IAF. HAL’s assembly line will be free; while the Tejas Mark II finishes testing, HAL can build a second squadron with the GE-404 engine,” he added.

So far, the plan was to produce 12 twin-seater Tejas trainers after the first squadron was built. The new order will be for 18 single-seater and 2 twin-seater Tejas: exactly what equips a fighter squadron.

Here’s why IAF urgently needs that second squadron: Against a sanctioned requirement of 39.5 squadrons (each squadron has 21 fighters), IAF is now down to just 32 squadrons. By 2015, another six squadrons of MiG-21s and two squadrons of MiG-27s would have finished their service lives. Meanwhile, HAL is manufacturing Sukhoi-30MKIs, but the current production is just 14 per year. The mathematics is clear: By 2015, IAF will have just 29 squadrons of fighters.

Making this shortfall even more worrisome is the new requirement of five IAF squadrons for north-east India, as a result of an increased threat assessment from China. Senior IAF officers have recently declared that India actually needs 45 squadrons.

In this context, IAF cannot wait to induct the Tejas as the next light fighter, a role that the MiG-21 has long performed. Medium fighters are as urgently needed, and IAF is currently evaluating six aircraft for this role. But the new Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), even if the contract is placed expeditiously, is unlikely to enter service before 2015-16. Only in the heavy fighter segment is IAF well placed, with the superlative Sukhoi-30MKI steadily joining the fleet.

The Tejas is currently undergoing weapon trials to obtain its Initial Operational Clearance, most likely by early 2011. Then starts the two-year process for obtaining Final Operational Clearance, after which it can enter service in early 2013. Then, if HAL can deliver 10 Tejas fighters per year, the first squadron will be ready by the end of 2014. And, if all of that goes smoothly, the second Tejas squadron will join IAF by the end of 2016.

IAF has decided that No 45 Squadron, which operated MiG-21M fighters until they were recently retired, will be the first Tejas squadron. It will be based in Sulur, near Coimbatore. It is still not clear where the second Tejas squadron will be based.

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First Published: Mon, November 23 2009. 00:45 IST